The following piece is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
At the beginning of this year, the Daily Dot acquired the U.K.-based Internet tabloid the Kernel. What has resulted is an experiment in Internet journalism, and a rebuttal to common conceptions of what you can and can’t do online.
In August, we relaunched the Kernel as a Sunday magazine, every week featuring a special report on a single issue of importance to the Internet community. Almost everything about that is contrary to the accepted online publishing wisdom — and yet it has actually been pretty successful. The Kernel has published a consistently great editorial product and has garnered a surprisingly large audience. But we’ve also learned a lot — about how typical Internet practices these days optimize for certain types of content; what it takes to publish a weekly while also keeping abreast of the Internet news cycle (which is less a “cycle” than a continuous flood); and perhaps most importantly, how you transition a team and a brand in a distributed company.
When we acquired the site, what excited us most about the Kernel was actually a subset of its content — with some regularity the Kernel ran articles that went deep into corners of the Internet that the rest of us might not have wanted to see in our browser history — a tradition we’ve kept up with articles such as the deepest parts of the deep web or the cutting edge of sex toys you can control from your phone.
We often found ourselves reading their articles and saying, “we wish we had written that.” So when the opportunity presented itself to acquire it, we were immediately interested.
A Weekend Magazine? Really?
After taking possession of the site, we took a few months to think through how it should live on as a Daily Dot property. As the paper of record for Internet culture and online life, we at the Daily Dot wanted to emphasize those types of Kernel articles that were aligned with our mission and so impressed us. We wanted a vehicle to do even more in-depth reporting, expanding its impact, and prove that longform investigative journalism had a place in online culture.
We were also very intrigued by the notion that the Kernel was a “magazine.” That wasn’t necessarily how it was being defined at the moment we acquired it, but it was, after all, at “kernelmag.com.”
What emerged from those discussions was in many ways the opposite of what is succeeding right now on the Internet and what has been succeeding in journalism since the advent of cable.
In an age when the loudest voices and the most controversial opinions gain the most traction — from the air waves, to the cable lines, to the Internet — the Kernel would be an opportunity to quietly reflect. While facile factoids pass for reporting, and the most provocative statements outweigh simple truth in most media, the Kernel would instead dive deeply into a single subject: soberly and thoughtfully. The light it would shine would be that of extensive fact, coherent argument, and a variety of perspectives.
Once a week, we decided, the Kernel would publish a selection of longform articles treating a single subject from a diverse collection of angles. Some articles would be written by Daily Dot staff, while others would be the unvarnished points of view of outside experts and people directly involved in the subject.
Conventional wisdom says that you’re not supposed to do any of that. No one wants longform on the Internet — especially not sober, nuanced longform, right? And you’re certainly not supposed to publish just once a week — and on a Sunday morning no less! What fools we were…
Well, it turns out the Internet — the people of the Internet — do want that. Let’s not forget that a lot of us got online because we wanted to know more, to get deeper, to get away from the screaming sophistry of the mass media, and learn something real. That’s the Internet that many of us originally envisioned and wanted.
We’ve published a lot of articles in the new Kernel that we’re really proud of, such as an in-depth exclusive on how the FBI took down one of their most wanted hackers and the story of how Reddit helped an incarcerated former Meth addict find a new path. And they’ve been embraced by the audience — almost immediately, the Kernel had its best traffic month ever and became the top original longform startup, reaching nearly 1 million unique visitors in its second full month.
And more important than the volume of eyeballs, Kernel articles have proven engaging as we’ve begun to hone in on the right audiences for the content. Average time-on-page has steadily risen for us (with some articles seeing an average engagement as high as 19 minutes), and social engagement and shares have been among the highest for all digital longform publications. For having just re-launched the Kernel at the end of August, we’re excited to see this kind of traction already.
Here is where we insert the “but” of this article, and get down to reflecting on what we know we could have done better.
3 Key Lessons Learned
I’m proud of the Kernel, and I’m very proud of our editorial team and everything they’ve been able to accomplish — but that doesn’t mean we did everything right. Far from it, actually. We made lots of mistakes.
I’ve made a habit of airing our key learnings in public, no matter how inconvenient. Because this level of transparency has been so well-received, here I go again.
In many ways, as CEO of a startup, it’s my job to be wrong. If we knew what was right, then we wouldn’t be a startup any more. We wouldn’t be innovating, at least not radically. So here’s all the ways I was wrong (including the ways I was wrong that our editors have pointed out to me); all the ways I hope I’ve learned something; and the ways I hope we’ll do better next time.
1. We underestimated the time needed.
You’re always struggling in any business against limited resources. Nowhere is this more true than in a startup. But the Kernel was intended to create more opportunities for us to do investigative, longform work. The Internet demands so much “snackable” content that we’re always looking for ways to counter that natural vortex.
A lot of great work gets drowned out in the daily storm surge that is the Internet. In conceiving of the Kernel as we did, we were hoping to create a bit of high ground for the items which can easily float past in the news feed, their greater depths hidden beneath the surface. Interestingly enough, many of our most successful “Kernel” pieces early on were actually republished Daily Dot pieces, articles that had gotten lost in the day-to-day flood — a fact that in itself validates the whole concept of the Kernel, I think.
But big picture, I should have recognized the difficulties we were putting on ourselves, and that I was putting on our team. I’ve worked on enough special sections myself to know that it’s pretty difficult to make time for them. In fact, making time is the greatest challenge.
The Kernel is so important, and yet it appears less urgent when stood up against day-to-day demands. Our team has put in a lot of extra hours to make the Kernel happen every week, and I haven’t done enough to figure out how to enable them to make time for the Kernel in a more natural, sustainable way. Doing longform and doing something like a weekend magazine is in that sense as much a cultural issue for us at the Daily Dot as it is a logistical one.
To that point, there’s a big culture in startups of prizing long hours — there’s a certain amount of chest beating over who’s worked the longest. But I think that this mentality is an enabler of terrible, shoddy work.
Constraints are good, constraints are the fathers of creativity, and the biggest constraint is time. Limiting the hours of work we do is the forcing function for learning how to do it better.
2. Diversity challenged our distribution.
Not only is the Kernel a weekly magazine, but each week, it treats a wholly different topic. That means that Monday to Saturday, there’s nothing new to keep readers engaged. Even worse, because the next week’s topic will be completely different — the Kernel is always about the Internet, but that’s a pretty big world — the audience may in fact be completely different too.
One week the Kernel may be diving deeply deeply into Geek Girl Culture and the next looking at the Rise of Esports. We might follow an issue tackling the darkest corners of the Deep Web with one looking at the future of Education 2.0.
We love that diversity, but that also means the traffic is inherently spiky. We did 900k uniques in October and we’ll cross the 1 million mark regularly soon. I remember when the Daily Dot first hit the 1 million milestone. It took us a bit under a year and the staff was elated. 1M is less impressive to us (and to advertisers) these days, but we’ll still celebrate. We feel like we’re near an inflection point.
Nonetheless, the traffic from issue to issue and week to week on the Kernel is wildly different, as is the underlying audience in many cases. I expected that to a degree, but not as much as we’re seeing in actuality. I thought we could drop the Kernel into our distribution system and its content would spread largely the same as always. I was wrong. The Kernel’s returning audience isn’t the healthy 40% that we enjoy on the Kernel’s parent site, and as a result the experience of releasing each new issue feels awfully close to re-launching an entirely new media startup, each and every week.
It’s a timely challenge for us to refine our distribution platform to better accommodate the needs of longform specifically. Our current focus is making distribution more one-to-one, refining how targeted our distribution efforts are, especially given the ways in which the Kernel’s audience is similarly episodic. We’re pretty damn happy with the content and reception from those who read the Kernel, but it’s the distribution that keeps us awake at night.
We have been building lots of tech to allow us to literally market each article at the atomic level. We believe that each article has an intended, findable audience all its own, and the Kernel is the ideal proving ground for such a method.
I should also note that this is the third iteration of the Kernel brand. We’re not just introducing people to a new editorial concept; we’re reintroducing them to one that they may think they already knew.
We never had that challenge with the Dot; we got to start from scratch. I think that we definitely underestimated the ways in which the brand would transfer and not transfer alongside the evolved mission we chose. A returning audience is in part a byproduct of brand; the goal is for readers to more regularly choose the Kernel brand from amongst their existing repertoire of sites, based on a track record, and clear promise of what to expect. On this front, we believe that laying down just that — a track record — solidifies the brand disproportionately to any ergonomic or aesthetic changes that are currently on the table.
3. I wish we’d provided the best and smoothest on-boarding.
We got a lot of great talent when we took over the Kernel, and while I certainly expected that not everyone would be the perfect fit for the Daily Dot, there’s been more attrition than I expected or wanted.
Ultimately, I wish we had done more to onboard the new team. They got the full-service, new employee orientation and welcome, which is white glove (for a startup), but there was an additional layer to think about in this instance. We weren’t just bringing in individuals, we were bringing on a whole team that was used to working together and that had a thing they were already used to creating.
To an extent, we were simply limited by resources — it would have been ideal to bring everyone together, but the Kernel’s staff were mostly in the UK, so certain costs were prohibitive for a startup. We did many a video call with each individual and with the team, but it wasn’t only about effort and time spent. It was our first acquisition and there are some additional nuances of the particular type of transition that we were trying to make. These people weren’t starting a new job, they were continuing an existing job with a company they may or may not have chosen for themselves. That conversation is a little different than the one we were used to having.
We could have thought more critically about that transition, communicating what the new company and culture was all about, and comparing and contrasting that culture with the old. We could have been talking more explicitly about how people might transition, how things could work in the new organization, what elements were important to keep from the old organization, and where each person could fit in and go in the new.
I would also like to have worked harder to find, proactively, those people that just weren’t interested in the Daily Dot. We took it for granted that the interest in continuing after the acquisition was uniform.
These very problems of transitioning teams within acquisitions are one of the classic traps in business — and we fell right into it. That said, several key and beloved members of the original Kernel staff are on our team, and we couldn’t be happier to have them. They are talented, serious journalists, and I am so glad they’ve seen past our imperfections in the transition to what we are trying to build together.
In a startup, you’re trying so hard to become a success and time, it seems, is always against you. You can’t afford any missteps.
It is hard to say this, but my mantra is: to become successful, you have to embrace failure. If a startup is going to become a prince, it has to first be a frog, warts and all. These are our warts. In a perverse way, I’m as proud of them as I am of the successes. The articles we’ve written and the readership they’ve received have been wonderful. But equally wonderful are the lessons we’ve learned.
We are still at the beginning and looking into the future, we are determined to make a great success of our weekly magazine, and the failings I’ve outlined are as important a part of that future as the successes. In fact, no matter what heights we ultimately reach, if there’s ever a point we can’t sincerely see something to do better, that’s the moment you know you’ve reached the peak, and it’s all downhill from there.
I look forward to the long climb ahead, and I hope there are always new crests to be glimpsed among the clouds.
Nicholas White is the Co-founder and CEO of Daily Dot Media, and Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Dot, the most-comprehensive, in-depth publication covering Internet culture and online life, and one of the fastest growing online media brands. Nicholas is a sixth-generation journalist and was formerly Vice President of Audience for Sandusky Newspapers’ midwest division. He currently sits on Sandusky’s board of directors. Nicholas is married to novelist Louisa White, and has two dogs, Hunter and Oscar, named for Hunter S. Thompson and Thompson’s attorney, Oscar Acosta. Follow Nicholas at twitter.com/desertbunny, facebook.com/desertbunny and http://weblog.nicholaswhite.me.